Along with reflections on his personal journey, the author articulates some of his co-ordinates for a Good Life.
My eyes can’t help zooming into the shopping carts of people around me in shopping-mall checkout lines. There are plentiful options of what and how much to buy. This cart example could be a metaphor for a good life, for a good life depends upon the choices we make. To live is to choose, but “to choose well”, says Kofi Annan, “you must know who you are and what you stand
for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.”
The Upanishadic template of preya - palate’s pleasure, and shreya - sustaining, nourishing of life, come to mind. Wholesome choices come from awareness, not just intelligence, with awareness understood more as whole-system thinking—a capacity to detect patterns and processes, intentions as well as an idea of consequences of the choices made.
Defining a good life depends on each person’s passion, purpose, focus, experience, level of awareness/understanding and philosophy of life. Each of us has a philosophy of life, which, though perhaps unarticulated, is revealed by our value system and actions.
For me a Good Life would have these following co-ordinates among others:
Gift of Discernment
A good life requires us to live in awareness and refine one’s viveka, the capacity to differentiate at all levels. Take the very basic capacity of differentiating what the palate loves – perhaps burgers, french fries, fizzy drinks - and what the body needs as nutrients for its optimum functioning.
The point is, we all have the necessary sensitivity, but progressively numb it. Ayurveda mentions prajna paradha, or misuse of the higher mind; a good life is practically impossible
if this is dominant.
I regard sva-dharma as ‘self-involved’ but in its most positive sense - as Taking Care of Oneself. I have been trying to align my lifestyle to the insights coming from such traditions as Yoga, Ayurveda, Zen and Sufism, where physical, mental and spiritual elements are deeply and clearly conveyed.
On the purely physical plane we need to pay attention to whatever we ingest, to proper elimination and detoxification, rest, relaxation, exercise, exposure to fresh air and sunshine. In terms of psycho-physical health, Yoga and Ayurveda provide us effective blueprints.
Sva-dharma is also significant when we realize the unique privilege of human birth. Honouring such a gift would mean leading a life that does justice to it.
Living somewhere in-between
Wisdom acquired by experience and learning from wise ones recommends living ‘somewhere in between’ - somewhere between aggressive spending and miserly deprivation, and to hold a worldview between reckless optimism and incorrigible pessimism.
In everything in life there is a place of balance; wisdom means searching for that place. Living well in a contemporary setting yet being in touch with the wisdom of the ancients is yet another
balancing challenge - between the spirit of the times and the spirit of the depths.
Closely connected is the gift of contentment; knowing what enough is. Contentment is certainly not non-aspirational laziness or anti-progress, but arises out of recognizing and appreciating what truly adds value to well-being, and guides us to make choices accordingly.
At the core of this lies Radical Simplicity - whether it comes from a Zen appreciation of uncluttered life and beauty, Gandhian self-sufficiency, Schumacherian respect for the small and pertinent, or Vedantic and Buddhist desire management .
Intellectual vibrancy & buoyancy
Our assumptions come from our perception and interpretation of reality, rather than from reality itself, which in time, solidify into a belief system. The ability to listen, accommodate and
frequently re-examine our most cherished ideas can help us get a clearer perception of situations or stances and escape the barren certitude of the dogmatic.
I use the term ‘buoyancy’ because some of our beliefs weigh heavily on us; often showing up as dead-end patterns, which as we get older, seem all the more familiar, though often more apparent to others than to ourselves.
Feeding the mind
The mind, like the stomach needs to be fed, and we can choose to provide substantial or irrelevant stuff. Minds are also capable of expanding or shrinking. Interest, curiosity, focus are tools of mental expansion. There are a wide variety of methodologies and practices to sharpen cognitive abilities; Edward de Bono, Howard Gardner and others have widened the field. However, a broad perspective is fostered by familiarity with world history, literature, religious traditions, philosophy and arts.
For me, soaking in world literature has proved vital. Literature is not ordered knowledge, as in architecture or even philosophy, and in that sense it resembles life itself. Literature shows us life’s inner contradictions, often in a nuanced way. My readings have helped me traverse both geographic and psychological regions previously unknown to me.
Security in relationships
A Good life is not lived in isolation; we need others’ energies for our well being, and sometimes need to avoid unwholesome relationships. In my version of a good life it is important to have tasted love, and at least one person you’ve loved, and one or two who have cared deeply about you. In my life, I have tasted such love from my parents, my wife and others around me. I feel blessed in most cases to have been loved for who I am.
In every person there are two levels of story - of an outer functioning self, and an inner creative, dreaming and artistic self. We are imaginative beings - that is why boredom finds us
so easily. Creative endeavors bring a sense of aliveness to us. Engaging with any art form has this vital role of supporting a good life. One commitment I have made for my wellness is to
remain creatively and joyfully occupied.
We operate with of two maps, one mental, the other emotional, and need to learn when to navigate by each. The degree or intensity of the variance can determine the quality of our lives.
The heart has a different set of reasons that the mind may fail to grasp. On the whole our minds get more education than our hearts, as a result in certain cases we make decisions with our
hearts then wait for our minds to do the clean-up job. But at other times, the perception and sensing of our hearts turns out to be more accurate and deeper.
In a recent film I saw, the actress said to her man, “Your heart is bigger than your annoying brain; that’s why I love you.”
Aligning with Nature
The greatest insights of the yogis came from living in the bosom of nature, in close and intense observation of bio-rhythms, cycles, transitions. Their field of observation was their natural
surroundings, and their field of experimentation their own bodies. Almost all asanas bear tree or animal names.
We spend too many hours of our waking life in artificial surroundings of geometric soullessness. There is a certain unruffled serenity that only nature can provide; when I am in the midst of a natural setting, I am left with nothing to do but to abandon myself to healing repose.
When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit laughs for what it has found.
- Sufi saying
There are two dimensions to life: the historical dimension, where we identify with birth/ death,
ups/ downs, beginnings/ lendings; and the ultimate, spirit dimension. A good life is difficult if not impossible without factoring in the spirit dimension - the part of us that is eternal, imperishable and is of the nature of being, consciousness and bliss. There is this metaphor
of being in ‘exile’, not so much a matter of geography but of estrangement in the world. Enlightenment could be perceived as a kind of home-finding and home-coming. Everyone has to
come out of the ‘lostness’ of exile in his/her own way.
A good life could be said to be infused with meaning, and awareness of invisibles that lie just behind the visible. A Persian couplet enlarges the scope of our interwoven cosmic participation by reminding us, “The cloud, wind, moon and sun are at work, so that you get a piece of bread in hand. Do not consume it in forgetfulness.”
Joyousness and Playfulness
“Everyone is the age of their heart.” - Guatemalan Proverb
There are a few people whose sense of being, aliveness, radiant happiness and real unrestrained hearty laughter have been a source of inspiration to me – like the Dalai Lama, whom I was fortunate to meet, Desmond Tutu and Jackie Chan. Each of them have had their share of hardships but their response to life has been a big YES. They seem to hold a perception of the world not
as a battlefield but more like a playground.
There is a saying that we don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
I push to find a new context, a new way to orient myself to this approach, knowing this innate, almost artistic passion and exuberance for living comes from the decision to be happy, which is actually the decision to stop being unhappy.
One can live a lifetime at the end of which one knows more about other people than about oneself. Thoreau sees selfknowing as a home-cosmography that comes from directing one’s eye inward, finding a thousand undiscovered regions. The sage Vasishta believed this self knowledge or knowledge of truth is not had by resorting to a guru or preceptor, nor by the study
of scripture, nor by good works: it is attained only by means of inquiry inspired by the company of wise and holy men. One’s inner light alone is the means. When this inner light is kept alive, it is not affected by the darkness of inertia.
Yet, a good life can neither be lived wholly in the outside or wholly inside. Almost all traditions believe in a combination of fasting, silence and solitude to balance the density of
daily life that have a pull on us, that deplete vitality and can leave heaviness upon one’s
There is enough in the world to be disenchanted and distracted with; to keep oneself centred in the midst of all this is possible when we seek to become aligned with ‘being’. This can happen best in our moments of silence, self-punctuation, and reflection.
All of us are subject to the laws of aging and extinction. Clearly no bargaining is possible on the length of life, but we seem to have enormous influence over its width and depth.
If we talk of death, let’s also think of old age. I wish - and work towards - a good old age. A well-spent life should end with a happy ending, a good death. When I give my terminal breath
I’d prefer to be at home and while asleep, not in the hospital sustained by tubes into or out of every orifice.
We seem to be stuck with a certain contradiction here, that there is death, void and a certain absurdity to existence and yet there needs to be passionate love of life. We are invited to hold both together in our consciousness. Awareness of the inevitables of life need not lead to a gloomy outlook, but should encourage us to put in more sense and zest to our days.
Fear less, hope more; eat less, chew more; whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more; love more, and all good things will be yours.
– Swedish proverb
A good life is an examined life, through reflection, dialogue, perhaps note-taking and autobiographical writing. I think here perfect objectivity is an unrealistic goal but fairness to self and others is helpful. In the end, what matters is to be sound of body and serene of mind. A phase of one’s life can be said to end when its basic illusions are nearly exhausted. Maturing is an ongoing process where, by fits and starts, piece by agonizing piece, we give up the prized possessions of our personalities and tendencies to our deeper selves. Leading a good life takes courage and compassion and a prevailing sense of humour.
Homayun Taba is a writer, painter, educator, organizational consultant, Homayun Taba lives in Mumbai.